One of my favorite blogs is Philosophers’ Playground. The topics there are interesting and accessible, and all over the board. One topic was called “Ambiguity is the Pits,” asking the question whether “pitted olives” means that the olives have pits in them or have had the pits removed.

There was lively debate in the Comments for the topic with exploration of seedless vs. seeded grapes, bottled milk, shelled peanuts, and things that are skinned. What I found interesting about the discussion was that commentators were trying to inductively arrive at theories about the linguistic rules involved and whether those are being consistently applied. I wondered how one could arrive at a theory based on very little knowledge of a topic whose breadth includes much more than what is revealed in examples alone.

What can’t the examples tell us?

Historical Linguistics

Back when English was much younger, it included a great many particles (ex: suffixes, prefixes, etc.) that could be combined in a variety of ways to create new words and by which speakers could decode words they’d not heard before. Our –ed of today is a particle that we typically stick onto the end of verbs to form the past tense, but it wasn’t the original particle. There were basically two (with transformational variations) that our modern language renders –ed, and one of them had nothing to do with tense.

The first particle, and the one we think of first when we see –ed, was actually a set composed of -ede, -ode, -de, -ed. These were used to form the past and perfect tenses of “weak” verbs, as in: I cooked yesterday / I have cooked all day. The tendency of language to simplify reduced them to just the one. (They call the simplification process of endings “leveling.”) Laziness, confusion over which one to use, lack of language education, dialectal differences, slurring or de-emphasizing, changes in vowel & consonant pronunciations (see Latin examples),  and adaptation of more complex verb endings using the simplest form available are some reasons to name a few.

The other particle was a derivational suffix that looked something like -odi (which had the sense of “provided with, formed into the likeness of, made into, shaped like, having the qualities of”) that was attached to concrete nouns to form adjectival abstractions: thick-headed, big-mouthed, apple-shaped, sharp-tongued, etc. This particle was among a hefty group of suffixes that do pretty much the same thing: -y (crafty), -ful (sorrowful), -ish (stylish), and more, all including the notion of “inalienable possession.”

Before we dive in to the pit problem, pause to reflect on your sense of the difference between ‘blessed’ (/blεst/) and ‘blesséd’ (/blεsεd/).

Let the Confusion Begin

Since the tense (inflectional) ending and the derivative-suffix ending have been reduced to the single form, we cannot always distinguish the two semantic constructs except by context, which is something we have to do anyway. “Tear” … is it a rip in something or a drop of liquid from your eye? We decode and derive meaning from words by their relationships to other words: all meaning (not-equal to ‘definitions’) arises out of position near or within something else, whether a concept, a grammatical construction, inflection, emphasis, or even a physical situation. For instance, we know that ‘teared’, with an –ed ending, belongs to the liquid-shedding context because the past tense of the ripping context is ‘tore’.

With the reduction (or leveling) of –odi to –ed, context becomes more important to disambiguate something like ‘pitted’. Pitted olives (adverbial: olives having been modified by removing the pit) or pitted olives (possessional: olives “provided with” pits).

With “pitted” we have two problems: one is the seeming silliness in using “pit” to mean “remove pit”, and the lack of consciousness about the –ed possessional adjective suffix. Even with the benefit of all this information, we still may not know whether we’re dealing with a adverbial (result of an action) or an adjective (“provided with”).

Starting with the verb angle, contrast seeded grapes vs. seedless grapes. Gads! With comparisons of two like things, no wonder we get confused! You’d have to know that “to pit” means to “remove the pit from” and “to seed” does not mean to “remove the seed from” in order to come close to formulating the context. And you might have to know about the other ‘to pit’ options. Although not etymologically related, there is ‘to pit’ as in to cause indentations, and ‘to pit’ as in ‘to throw into a pit together’, now extended to ‘to pit’ someone against another.

From the adjectival angle, we knew immediately that ‘pitted’ had to do with the “wood from within the center of a plant” because the context (judging from the can) was olives — as long, of course, as we already knew that olives had seeds we call pits. (I embarrassed myself the other day by sloppily referring to figs as growing on bushes.)

Further, when I googled “adjectives -ed”, the results overwhelmingly were for quizzes and exercises in ESL where the adjectives with -ed meant “the effect.” Some said “Adjectives of emotion/feeling are formed with -ed” and such like. Few addressed –ed in any other way than adverbial; and their explanations could not account for examples like thick-headed. Where there were lists of derivational suffixes, -ed was not even listed. There appears to be little consciousness of the possessional adjective form (much like the lost consciousness of the subjunctive form)! Yet the form persists without explanation and without dying out.

Sorting It Out

This level of disambiguation requires a bit more study — it is not a reflection of one’s mastery of English, but casual observation won’t cut it. Familiarity with a domain of knowledge (Linguistics and its attendant vocabulary) does not reflect on one’s skillful use of a language.

For instance, can you tell me the rule that dictates when you accentuate the first or second of two paired words, say: white house? (Won’t give any more examples because then the astute could grok the pattern.) Can you formulate the rule? Or take a super-tricky example in the word ‘do’ in cases where it is not a verb? It takes some nuanced observation to induce that the first instance of ‘do’ in “I didn’t do that” carries only tense (mode), not action.  But we form all kinds of previously unformed sentences with this modal-auxiliary construction without hesitation. Understanding the mechanics of rules is not the same as using the rules; and not knowing the rules is not the same as chaos reigns, as so many conclude in discussions about things like this judging by titles like “Our Twisted Way of Speaking” or conclusions as “English is a jumbled mess.”

When it comes to the verb “pit”, I’d have to pull out my ancient historical-linguistics books to brush up (re-learn?) what rules are in play with verb formation when pondering why “to pit” is “to remove a pit” and isn’t something that more properly might be “depit” or “expitticate” or “unpit” or “depitify.” But because this verb-formation phenomenon is so common and, within its commonality, it is consistent, there is a rule … I just don’t know what it is. We have no problem understanding ‘skinned’ or ‘boned’ … um, except “boned” would definitely need some clarifying context to avoid sexual innuendo.  I have a sneaking suspicion, however, that there might have been some fun play on words when forming the verb pit: as in taking out the core of a fruit with pits, you create a pit (a hollow).

So, with all this explanation, how are we to understand “wide-screen TV”? Should it be “wide-screened TV”? If we take an example from a few paragraphs ago, thick-headed, and say “thick-head man,” doesn’t that just feel weird? My sense is that “wide-screen” is a compound adjective, but I can’t really tell you why “thick-headed” isn’t, nor why leaving off the –ed on ‘head’ wouldn’t work. (Well, I could, but it would be shiny bull…ony.)


4 Responses

  1. Answer to the challenge: what rule that dictates when you accentuate the first or second of two paired words, say: white house?

    In our language, when a two-word combo where the first word is typically an adjective, becomes a single cognitive unit, the first word is accentuated. Say now “The White House is a white house.”

  2. […] next edition, you’d like to tackle the -ed suffix when talking about pitted olives or light-hearted discourse. That’s a great […]

  3. I always check to see what people are searching for to either to arrive at this site or find something in this site. Recently someone searched for “what does “-ulation” mean?”

    I’m guessing that they wondered because of the post title: de-pit-ulation.

    the -ulation part is actually a mash up, scarcely intelligible from an etymological point of view. I drew from the feel of the word ‘capitulation’ and also because it seemed like it would provide a fun inference.

    In actuality, the ‘ul’ is properly part of the noun stem. In the case of ‘capitulation’ (ignoring that we got the word from French, not Latin), we have ‘capitulum‘ which literally means ‘little head’. The root, then, is ‘capitul-‘.

    The last part of the suffix, ‘-ate’ means ‘to cause, to cause to be; make’. So de-pit-ulate would imply to cause the pit to be removed, in spite of the fact that ‘pitulum’ is not a Latin base. It comes from old W. Germanic pithan.

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